Five Life Stories That Changed My Life

"Your life changed five times?" a smart aleck said when I mentioned I'd be blogging on this subject. Call me a flibbertigibbet, but yes: Five times. Ten, if only space would allow!

The truth is: Some see the world with fresh eyes through wild adventures. For me, the revelations always come via books.

Have you ever wondered why memoirs have had such a good run over the past few years? They're such confessionals, many of them insipidly so. But the best can enlighten and inspire -- or even be reliable as manuals: Read "The Year of Magical Thinking" to know how it feels to be stung by tragedy. Read "Dreaming" to learn that there are drunks in other families, too. Read "Borrowed Finery" to know you can survive an orphanage. Some memoirs are so shocking that readers feel privy to a friend's most intimate secrets: If that "friend" is later exposed as a liar (think "A Million Little Pieces" or, most recently, "Love and Consequences"), readers feel grievously betrayed.

But the reason I love memoirs is for what some have taught me about myself. In my favorites, I've seen people I might have been. Or people I might become.

Here are five that changed me in one small way or another:

1. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. I read this when I was 13. I had just started to study Russian and I assumed I was reading an exquisitely rendered translation. But Nabokov had written it in a language not his own! It was my introduction to the notion that I, who had grown up in another language and country, could claim English as lustily. Hadn't Conrad? To this day, I consider Speak, Memory the best memoir ever written; and among the top 10 books of my life.

2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Reading it in college, I understood that I was a person of color -- for everything Angelou felt as an African American, I, as an Hispanic, felt, too. But Angelou's book also teaches you something about being female; from it, I learned that even my smallest successes would be hardwon.

3. Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. When this was published in 1982, the Latino population in America was just beginning to realize it was a force to be reckoned with. Rodriguez showed that its constituents were wildly different. It's a lesson the country has yet to learn.

4. This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff. I had to get it into my head that I was half Anglo, too. This book taught me about being an American -- high-spirited, free and mobile. With a highway just beyond the door.

5. The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr. My father was from Peru, but my mother was from Wyoming. This Texas memoir, which I read well into middle age, was nothing like the Peruvian childhood I had experienced, and yet, it felt like bedrock. Despite class, despite culture, despite language -- it was (uncomfortably!) like home.

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  March 6, 2008; 7:18 AM ET Marie Arana
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The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams changed my view of the (local) world. Reading about a fellow New Jersey suburbanite made me realize that, however bland and parochial your hometown may feel, it might have a hidden history, and can serve as subject for great poetry, even epic poetry (Paterson). It also demonstrated the richness of a dual existence -- Williams delivered hundreds of babies, but also cranked out poetry, fiction, and essays every chance he got. Shows you what you can accomplish if you avoid web-surfing:)

Posted by: Mark Tarallo | March 7, 2008 2:23 PM

Does "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee count? I stumbled my way into that book ages ago and have yet to make my way out. I do not mean this as a bad thing.

Posted by: basil | March 7, 2008 5:57 PM

Thank you for these comments.

Of course, what I should have asked up front is: What memoir made a difference to you? What narrative changed your life?
It's such a troubled genre right now, what with all the revelations about outright lies and believability. A reader can't be sure.

Perhaps the memoir's reign is over.
Maybe that's the question I should have asked at the start.

p.s. The two suggestions: The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are truly interesting works, revelatory for their time. Thanks for the suggestions.

Posted by: Marie Arana | March 7, 2008 9:50 PM

I'm not sure if I can say I've read a "life changing" memoir, but I do have a couple to add.

Guy Sajer's "The Forgotten Soldier" is the most powerful memoir of war experience I've ever read, and I've read a few. Sajer was a Franco-German soldier in Russia.

Also, maybe not life-changing but certainly perception-changing are some of the original accounts of explorers. Most recently I read Samuel Hearne's Voyage to the Northern Sea.

Posted by: SonofCarl | March 12, 2008 12:42 PM

"Name All the Animals" by Alison Smith
It was a book I picked up my final year of college. I was looking for a quick read to balance out all of the dense theory and dry history text I was swimming through. As soon as I started to read I could not put it down, and quickly came to the conclusion I had picked the wrong book for a quick read. As a young girl Alison Smith's brother died, and the aftermath of emotions tore her family apart(this is a very brief summary). This book made me realize I never wanted to feel seperated or isolated from my sisters and my mother agian. As a teenage my father died after a long struggle with cancer. We still struggle to connect and regain the closness we once all had. This book pushed me to activly persue friendship and a loving, working relationship with my siblings and my mother. Sometimes it takes a story outside of your life that is simaliar to your own to allow you to see what is right in front of you.

Posted by: Anna | March 13, 2008 1:11 PM

So I'm a liar.
My husband just reminded me that the memoir I've always said most changed my life wasn't among the ones I mentioned. It was Maxine Hong Kingston's "Warrior Woman."
Strange, how a fleeting task can alter a bedrock truth. I scavenged a lifetime of books but didn't come up with the one that meant the most to me.
Before I read "Warrior Woman," I didn't know that an American woman could be--as I was--an entirely different quotient: a non-white immigrant with a mythology that wasn't about Plymouth Rock.
"Warrior Woman" certainly should have been on my original list.

Posted by: Marie Arana | March 31, 2008 10:55 PM

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